August 31, 2004
I’m sorry to have to write this letter.
You've been honest, passionate, and reasonably fair-minded. You've seemed to care about what’s true and not true. You've stood for the intellectual and ethical side of modern Republicanism that I’ve come to grudgingly respect, a mix of concern for the moral content of American life, wariness about the size and power of the state, and strength abroad where strength is needed.
I would have voted for you for President. We’ve been good for each other. But now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country, and for all good Republicans to turn their backs on their party's leadership. You could have begged off, sat on the sidelines, agreed to mumble a few bland compliments when asked directly. But you’ve decided to be George Bush’s ethics beard. You cannot honor the dishonorable in the name of loyalty. You cannot wallow in the bilges and hope to remain untainted.
I’m writing not just to you but to all conservatives and to all Republicans of good faith. I’ve discovered in the past ten years the importance and value of the intellectual and political heritage of modern conservatism. I’ve found that the works of Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, and many other authors promoted by American conservatives contain much more complexity and richness than I once thought. I’ve come to find some of the ideas and politics of libertarianism attractive. Like Rick Perlstein, I now understand the genuine popular rootedness and authenticity of many strains of conservative thought and politics as they have developed in America since Barry Goldwater’s presidential run. I’ve come to admire a number of Republicans and conservatives in political life, in the public sphere, in academia. I recognize the validity of many conservative critiques of the American left as it took shape between 1960 and 2000, to the point that I would say that whatever my political identity is, it no longer resides with “the left”.
But it’s almost over between us, John. It’s over between me and anyone who stands with Bush. I’ve got no polite words, no patient rationalism, no toleration left in me anymore. If you go with that man, if you defend him, it’s over between us. I won’t vote for you in 2008 so you can preside over the steaming ruins that two Bush Administrations will leave behind. Don’t think you can pretend to be faithful to truth and competency and then slink secretly into the voting booth and pull the lever for Bush. I’ll know it when I look at the voting tallies the morning after election day, whether the conservatives have betrayed their ideas. I won’t take you back. And don’t throw it in my face that I’m in bed with others, not really a conservative at all. That’s absolutely true. I'm not. I’m shameless and loose. I’ll go with anyone who cares about America and the world, anyone who cares about ideas and evidence, who cares about honesty and who cares about honor, who cares about competency and who cares, really cares, about effectively spreading freedom and justice throughout the world.
Look at the man you’re fronting for, John, all you supposed conservatives and honorable Republicans, look at him and the people around him. Let me count his sins, each and every one of them sufficient reason alone to turn your back on the man.
1. Bush is incompetent. You’ve enjoyed throwing Jimmy Carter’s supposed incompetence in everyone’s face for years. Well, the Bush Administration has scaled new heights on that mountain. Almost everything that could have been mishandled about Iraq has been bungled: the run-up, the intelligence, the occupation, the whole damn idea in the first place. This Administration threw out a multi-million dollar study that would have been an effective aid in the occupation of Iraq just because of internecine administrative struggles. This Administration placed its faith in Ahmed Chalabi, a corrupt would-be kleptocrat who probably also spied for Iran. Iraq is only the beginning of the story of failure in the last three years: it goes on and on and on. We’re in a struggle for our lives and values, John, and these guys are losing. Losing big. Abraham Lincoln knew when to fire his generals, because for him winning the Civil War was what counted. George Bush just stands by his men no matter how disastrous their advice or actions.
2. Bush is the biggest threat to core American principles of liberty in a century. Just look at yesterday’s news if you don’t believe me, John. The President acknowledged that the war on terror is unwinnable in the conventional sense. This is the same President who has claimed extraordinary, extra-Constitutional emergency powers on the grounds that he is a “War President”. Put the two together and what do you get? It’s the nightmare scenario in a constitutional democracy, John, the “permanent emergency”.
3. Bush and the Republican leadership are the most filthily dishonorable and hypocritical politicians of the last 25 years. Don’t forget the outrageous pork barrel betrayals of core Republican convictions like the steel tariffs early in the Administration, but just the last month alone is enough to qualify for first prize in the Goebbels Sweepstakes. There’s the Swift Boat Liars and then there’s the Speaker of the House idly speculating yesterday that George Soros trafficks in illegal drugs. The Speaker of the House said that, John. Not B-1 Bob Dornan or some other fool. They're destroying the political institutions of this country. They’re the New Scum, John, willing to do anything, say anything, smash anything to gain power. They’re not worthy of your loyalty.
4. Bush and his men have no respect for evidence, for truth, for honest process. They don’t look at all the information in front of them, they don’t take advantage of the enormous resources available to them, they don’t believe in considered debate before difficult decisions. They don’t believe in complexity in a complex world, they don’t believe in fairness. They’re not interested in the world as it is, and if you’re not interested in the world as it is, you can’t possibly be interested remaking the world into what it could be. It used to be that American conservatives mocked liberals who looked at the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia or Nicaragua and saw what they wanted to see rather than what is. Well, what about all the people who look at Iraq and see a fantasyland of their own imaginings, who look at the world and see what they want to see? The worm has turned, John, the shoe's on the other foot now.
5. Bush and his men are the most fiscally irresponsible administration in the past 25 years. They’re destroying the future as they spend like drunken sailors on liberty in a whorehouse.
6. They’re pushing a moral crusade where it ought not, cannot be allowed to go. Hear me out on this one, John. I know how you feel about these issues—it’s always been the thing I liked least about you. But in every relationship, you have to overlook a fault or two. I know you’re a reasonable person, and I know you can see why it’s wrong to move from supporting a particular idea or belief as moral to making that belief the law of the land. That’s a move that we should only make with great reluctance and care, because it makes government the enforcer of morality, when morality has to come from within, from the private convictions of Americans. I can at least listen—if almost certainly permanently disagree—to someone who wants to argue that abortion is one place where that move has to be made. I can’t even tolerate someone who wants to make that move everywhere, with everything, as a matter of course, who proposes constitutional amendments out of pure cynical politics, or worse yet, fervent desire to bend the law of the land to their private religious beliefs. That way lies theocracy, that way lies the betrayal of everything that America has been and could be.
Don’t tell me you shouldn’t change horses mid-stream, or as the joke going around puts it, horsemen mid-apocalypse.
Loyalty in defense of vice is no virtue.
Don’t send me flowers after it’s all over, John—you or anyone else who wants my respect, who wants to be regarded fairly, who wants an honest exchange of views, who wants to be partners in a truly democratic society. We can be good together, John: there can be an America where people of different convictions and beliefs all join together respectfully within a democratic society to find the way forward towards our common values. Don’t expect me to give you a fair shake again if you can’t do the right thing now. This is your last chance: you get away from that man. He’s no good for you, he’s no good for me, he’s no good for us all. He’s ruining everything. He’ll rob you blind and treat you wrong. I know his type.